What accounts for the fact that our political leaders, from Francois Hollande on down, have a hard time naming our enemy? There is a strange panicky fear of conflating Islam with Islamism. Why?
Do we have any political leaders? Is there a pilot on this airplane? It would be a pleasant surprise to discover that anyone is in control.
The fear of putting a name to the enemy goes back a long way. Who, before the Berlin Wall came down, dared to give a true name to Marxist-Leninism or the Soviet Union? People preferred to mumble vaguely about “ideologies.” The plural was a convenient fog.
That happens again today when people talk about “religions.” In the same way, some people prefer to use the acronym “DAESH,” which only Arabic scholars understand, rather than saying “the Islamic State,” because the adjectival form refers us back to “Islam.” And there is no true dividing line between Islam and Islamism. It is a matter of degree, not of kind. That is why it is necessary truly and firmly to distinguish between on the one hand, Islam, with all its inflections and levels of intensity, and on the other hand real flesh-and-blood Muslims. The legitimate refusal to conflate Islam with Islamism entails distinguishing these concrete people from the religious system that prevails in their country of origin.
The feeling of speechlessness and of distress produced by the outrage in Nice (weaponizing a truck, killing children)—is it a mark of a culture that has lost its sense of tragedy, its awareness of evil and of death?
People say that we are at war. But no one has the courage to do as Churchill did, and tell us that he has nothing to offer us except blood, sweat, and tears. Since the end of the War into which Churchill led his country, there have been seventy years of internal peace and prosperity. That has become our normal, and we think of it as our right, as a fact that goes without saying. War, famine, and so on is what happens to other people. Our proverb tells us that “happy people have no history.” But we have not made ourselves any happier by imagining that we have escaped from history.
These outrages are intended to render us speechless, and the media giving it non-stop coverage are helping them achieve that aim. We forget that violence is principally a means, and that we need to take our eyes off the violence itself and ask what it was aiming to achieve. The aim is to establish throughout the world a legal system that is some form of Sharia and that legislates the behavior of individuals, of families, of the economy, and in the long run the whole political system. We are fixated on the spectacular aspects of the outrages, on the decapitations and such like which the Islamic State lays before us with so much care and skill. But all of that is distracting us from the real question, which is that of the purpose of these things. This end could be achieved by means that are more discreet but equally effective, such as throwing culpability onto the enemy, social pressure, incessant propaganda warfare, every kind of trick.
Violence is perhaps a means, without necessarily entailing much action. All it takes is a menace great enough to force the adversary to surrender without a fight. In one way, using physical violence could perhaps be an error and be counter-productive, to the extent that it could provoke the enemy into an uprising. It would be smarter to tranquillize people with nice words or to show one's power without using it.
In L'Europe la voie romaine (Eccentric Culture: A Theory of Western Civilization), you show how our continent flows from the Greeks, the Romans, and the Christians. Can Europe and France put up a stout resistance to the Islamist menace without drawing on the intellectual legacy that is in its DNA?
What I try to show, more precisely, is that Europe followed the example of the Romans, who had the courage to recognize that their civilization was inferior to that of the Greeks, whom they had met in battle and overthrown. And so they let the Greeks school them. This is the “Roman road” or method to which the title of my book refers. Europe is secondary in relation to the sources of its culture, drawing on the Greeks for its philosophy (and the science built on it) and on Israel, especially the Old Testament and the Commandments, for its sense of the moral good and of God. Somewhat like the Romans are secondary in relation to the Greeks, so the Christians are secondary in relation to the Jews. This relationship to the Other has allowed Europe to be bold in seeking its good outside of herself—amongst the Arabs, the Byzantines, the Chinese, and so forth. On every occasion, one does not ask where the invention came from, but whether it can be useful to us, or where the ideas came from, but whether they are true, or where artifacts came from, but whether they are beautiful.
What can Christian faith bring to these new times of war? One has the impression that forgiveness of enemies is not only impossible but counter-productive.
Many people imagine that the forgiveness of wrongs, and even Christ's fantastically paradoxical demand that we love our enemies, means that we must refuse to see that we have any enemies. A German proverb says, “The most pious man cannot live in peace if that is not what his wicked neighbor wants.” Forgiveness of enemies is never counter-productive. But we need to see what it does produce. It does not disarm our enemies' hatred, as Tolstoy imagined. That only happens once in a while. It happened with Gandhi. But he was dealing with the English, who, even though they would do much to safeguard their interests and their power (as we all would), had no ideology. It takes an ideology to convince oneself that the opposed camp are not just our adversaries, but “aristocrats” (Robespierre), a class opposed to progress (Marx), “insects” (Lenin), an inferior race (Hitler), or, in relation to those “on the side of God” (Koran V.56), “the worst of animals” (Koran VIII.22).
When forgiving one's enemies really overthrows people, it’s by the conversion of our own heart, the refusal to get caught up in the cycle of revenge, in the escalation to the extremes of violence. The person who is ready to forgive will ask himself first whether the one who calls himself his enemy and who wants enmity has any reason for doing so. He will compel him to put things to right, without issuing blame. He will fight, because he must fight, and he will do so with courage, but without hatred.
Rémi Brague is professor emeritus at the Sorbonne and Romano Guardini Chair at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich.
This interview was conducted by Samuel Pruvot of Famille Chrétienne. Translated from French by Francesca Aran Murphy.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?